1.10.2020 4:50 PM

Culture

Report: AirBnB owns AI tech that discriminates against sex workers and people with mental illness

Algorithm patents owned by the company list sex work and psychopathy as ‘untrustworthy’ traits.

LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images

AirBnB owns AI-powered technology that descriminates against sex workers and people with mental illness, according to patents first filed in July 2018. The technology is linked to a background-check startup called Trooly that AirBnB acquired in 2015.

Sex workers have reported being banned from AirBnB in the past, but there’s never been such concrete proof as these patents.

It’s not exactly breaking news that big tech companies discriminate against sex workers. But it’s still jarring to hear of the way this discrimination is becoming more prevalent, rather than shrinking away.

Discrimination in the name of ‘trust’ — AirBnB’s predictive software is meant to be used to search the internet for a person’s “trustworthiness.” But its indicators of trust are really all over the place. For example, the patent lists traits such as “neuroticism and involvement in crimes” as particularly untrustworthy. Also on that list are words like “narcissism, Machiavellianism, or psychopathy.”

The keywords associated with untrustworthy people range from invovlement with drugs to associations with hate websites to sex work. The patent adds that people “involved in pornography” or who have “authored online content with negative language” will receive lower scores in the trustworthiness evaluation. Does this mean AirBnB is going to penalize me for cursing on Twitter?

The scan is...weirdly invasive — The patents describe a technology called “Determining Trustworthiness and Compatibility of a Person,” and it supposedly evaluates whether or not two people would get along. But it isn’t just AirBnB interactions that are being evaluated: it’s a person’s entire internet presence. The software seeks to worm its way into users’ lives by finding every last instance of their life on the internet.

AirBnB says it owns the technology but isn’t using it — A spokesperson told Business Insider that AirBnB is “not currently implementing all of the software’s screening methods as described in the patent filing.” But it does own the technology and could technically use it at any time it pleases. So that’s exciting.